The 2010 Mahakumbh Mela has been a huge pilgrim draw with five million people visiting the holy cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar in the first two days for a dip in the Ganga. The extra rush has been largely because of the auspicious alignment of planets this year and a solar eclipse that coincided with the new moon on Jan 15.
'On Jan 14 and 15, the number of pilgrims who bathed in the Ganga touched the 50 lakh (five million) mark in Haridwar and Rishikesh. The total number of bathers at Har-ki-Pauri crossed the 10 lakh (one million) mark by Jan 14 evening and on Jan 15, the estimates crossed 800,000 in Haridwar alone,' Anand Vardhan, in-charge of the Mahakumbha Mela, said.
At the end of the four-month fair (April 28) the number of pilgrims is expected to cross the 50-million mark, an official said.
In 1998, Haridwar and Rishikesh drew 10 million pilgrims for the Mahakumbh Mela. According to senior officials in the administration, the next Mahakumbh Mela in 2012 would draw more visitors.
'The number of foreign pilgrims this year is also more than that in the last Mahakumbh,' the official said.
The administration is taking all steps to ensure 'peaceful bathing' and to avoid skirmishes among the 'akhadas', or the religious sects, that are known to fight one another over who should enter the river first for the holy dip.
'The administration has nominated two mahamandeshwar (heads) from the 30 akhadas (sects of sadhus) who are taking part in the rituals to decide the order of the bathing. The sects have a long history of conflicts over bathing in the Ganga since the reign of Timur, the Muslim warlord who invaded India,' seer Kailashnand-ji, the head of the Agni Akhada which is camping on the outskirts of Haridwar, told IANS.
He appealed to the warring sects to maintain peace. The Naga sadhus, also known as the warrior ascetics, owe allegiance to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. The Shaivites and Vaishnavite Naga seers - who are armed with swords, tridents, sticks and pikes - break into virtual gang wars if denied due respect while bathing.
The two spiritual heads of the 30 akhadas will decide the order of bathing on Jan 30 for the 'shahi snan' Feb 12 on the occasion of Mahashivratri - the wedding day of Lord Shiva and Parvati according to Hindu mythology.
The Naga seers of the largest sect Dattatreya (an avatar of holy trinity) ascetics, the Juna Akhada, whom IANS spoke to, said they should be 'allowed to bathe first'.
'The ideal time for the Feb 12 'shahi (royal) snan' should be between 3.48 a.m. to 4.17 a.m. known as Brahma Muhurth or the auspicious hour. But we have decided to leave the bathing ghats free till 10 a.m. for common people after which it will be closed to pilgrims. We will be the first to bathe,' Kotwal (warrior) Vasant Puri Maharaj of the Juna Akhada told IANS.
However, Rishikesh-based Swami Chidanand Swarasati, who is helping the spiritual sects maintain fraternal amity, said: 'India is a land where people from the West come looking for peace on the banks of Ganga and the sadhus must remain united to show the mystical face of India.'
The government is also working to ensure that the 'shahi snans' -- the second one is scheduled April 14 -- are free of conflicts and the pilgrims are safe.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal is keeping a watch on security at the Mahakumbh Mela. The director general of police at the Mahakumbh Mela Alok Sharma said 'visitors should carry their identification because they can be screened any time.'
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)